The first issue of a magazine — especially a magazine that hopes to help define the era in which it lives — the first issue is always a big deal. It sets the tone for everything to come. It’s a pronouncement, a statement of purpose. It shows readers what they can expect, and it tells everyone (including, of course, other publications) just what this new title is made of.
When LIFE magazine launched in November 1936, the people behind it — including Henry Luce, who had co-founded TIME magazine more than decade earlier — made it clear from the start that this was not going to be just another picture magazine. The cover story in that first issue, featuring Margaret Bourke-White’s magnificent photographs of the men, women and machines building the monumental Fort Peck Dam in Montana, set a visual storytelling standard that, to this day, has never been exceeded. No one would argue that every single one of the more than 2,000 issues that LIFE published between November ’36 and December 1972 was a classic. But that first issue showed anyone and everyone who saw it that here was a publication that intended to stick around — and aimed to change the way that subscribers and readers expected from a weekly magazine.